Action and Isolation

At first glance action and isolation may not seem like antonyms, but consider those words in the following ways:

Action is a process. It is exerting a force, or perhaps, multiple forces. It implies interaction between a least two objects – or perhaps, an object and subject. Action implies change over time.

Isolation is a state of being. It is stillness, loneliness – emptiness, perhaps. It implies a complete lack of interaction. Solitude. Isolation implies stagnation – a lack of change from a lack of interaction.

It is no surprise that society as a whole should favor action. Even the height of American isolationism didn’t imply that proud Americans shouldn’t seek each other’s company. We wanted to be isolated with those who were like us – not isolated on our own.

Action is the foundation of society. If we all went to the woods because we wished to live deliberately, there would be no society left. “Communal life is moral,” wrote Philosopher John Dewey, adding, “that is emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained.”

Isolation, on the other hand, is generally frowned upon. A list of synonyms includes confinement, desolation, aloofness, detachment, exile, withdrawal. Am I the only one who thinks none of those sound good?

At best, isolation is seen as a phase of development, a period to grow out of. For seven weeks, Siddhārtha Gautama meditated in isolation under the Bodhi tree. He achieved enlightenment and emerged Gautama Buddha. He traveled and taught others what he had learned.

After being baptized, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean Desert – in isolation save the temptations of the devil. He emerged cared for by angels and prepared for public ministry.

Even Thoreau returned from the woods.

But why is isolation bad? Is it positive only as a tool to improve interactions upon our return?

That seems unfair. There is power in stillness, in loneliness – in emptiness even. Isolation can be calming, centering, enlightening.

Perhaps, after achieving enlightenment, we do have a duty to action – to share our lessons of isolation with others. But I can’t shake the feeling that by devaluing isolation we are doing ourselves a disservice.

Not that we should devalue action instead. I imagine we might all fall along a spectrum – some of us gregarious in our most isolated moments, and others isolated in our most gregarious moments.

They say there’s nothing worse than being alone in a crowd, but I’m not prepared to judge you for it.

I could sit under a tree for seven years and fail to achieve enlightenment. Would it be wrong of me not to give up? To remain in isolation seeking an unachievable goal?

Someone recently joked that society would be better if certain people choose isolation over action. The action, of course, is not always for the better.

So where does this leave us? Must we choose action or isolation? Can we embrace both as different modes of being, of existing?

Perhaps most of us will alternate between the two – embracing equally action and isolation. But a few will commit to one path. Always choosing the crowd or always alone.

Some of us will choose isolation.

And – perhaps that’s okay.


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